The Current State Of AR In Sports And How It’s On Pace To Explode

For the past three years, virtual reality has dominated the discussion around emerging technologies in sports. Yet, that’s quickly changing as the new player in town, augmented reality, is rearing its head to disrupt the in-venue fan experience, alter how information is presented on broadcast and provide fans a unique touchpoint with the teams they love.

“You’re about to see a pretty big explosion of AR,” says Scott Gutterman, Vice President of Digital Operations at the PGA TOUR.

“You’ll see some pretty aggressive AR rollout starting now and then over the next six months to a year as people really understand what it means.”

Specifically, Apple’s recent iOS 11 update, coupled with its introduction of the ARKit this fall, has Gutterman and the TOUR’s attention for how it could leverage the new technology. In May 2016 at The PLAYERS Championship, the TOUR partnered with Microsoft for its first foray into augmented reality. It integrated the company’s HoloLens device into a consumer experience for fans to interact with 3D hole models that also included golf statistics.

“HoloLens is how to get AR in the hands of a fan,” Gutterman said to Sports Business Chronicle. “The other way it is going is how do we use AR in broadcast … to give people a unique perspective on something we couldn’t before.”

That unique perspective came earlier this Spring, again around PLAYERS. PGA TOUR host John Swantek and analyst Billy Kratzert analyzed the No. 12 hole through the use of augmented reality. On PGA TOUR Live, the property’s over-the-top platform, Swantek and Kratzert could be seen analyzing the 3D image and discussing hole location and hazards in addition to how golfers could drive the Par 4 green.

Gutterman explained that in considering augmented reality integrations, like the No. 12 hole example, the TOUR weighs two key components: distribution potential of the platform and could it be a platform where either current fans or future fans might be interested in the product.

While the TOUR’s AR use is still relatively untapped compared to what it could be, Gutterman said the technology conversations are “very active” about how it could be seamlessly woven into PGA TOUR app itself. In turn, it could give a fans a better way to examine players and their statistics on-site or see what different holes look like at a tournament. He said that incorporating an AR experience into the app is preferred but the TOUR can’t “do anything to the app that risks the things that we have to deliver on.”

“We’re trying to figure out if we can integrate it into the app with a new SDK and the code that we need to go along with it to make it effective,” he added.

Though a time table wasn’t given, Gutterman alluded to the idea of a stand-alone PGA TOUR AR app at the outset “just to get our feet, see how fans accept it and to make sure it all runs well before we plug it into the broader platform.”

When asked about the slow adoption of AR up until this point — along with the industry conversation not progressing along at the same rate as virtual reality — Gutterman said he believed that there was a bias with augmented reality that whatever was executed had to be done with a headset. Hence, the existence of HoloLens and Magic Leap, a Florida-based company developing augmented reality and mixed reality experiences.

According to Gutterman, though, “that’s about to change” heading into the final two months of 2017 and the new calendar year.

“There’s been a bias that if you put AR into a phone, nobody would want to hold their phone up to look at AR,” he said.

“I think the first wave of AR is really going to be phone-based because the headsets are way too expensive to produce right now and too difficult.”

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Some sports teams traditionally place game day programs on fans’ seats, one of which is the Minnesota Vikings, but no one to our knowledge has created an augmented reality experience via thousands of in-stadium programs … until now.

Scott Kegley, Executive Director of Digital Media and Innovation, along with his Vikings staff decided to leverage the team’s home games to offer a unique experience to fans and also drive mobile app downloads.

On the Vikings game day playbook, a call to action prompts fans to download the Vikings team app. Fans are then asked to scan a circular bar code on the playbook, which ultimately triggers the experience. Whichever Vikings player is on the cover that particular week then delivers a ‘Welcome’ message to fans.

Through the partnership with VenueNext (Vikings’ app provider), Adept Mobile (fan engagement platform) and Zappar (AR experience provider), Minnesota has tracked a significant uptick in app downloads in the first half of the season, according to Kegley. Though he couldn’t disclose specific numbers, he said the Vikings saw a 58 percent increase in app downloads during the Week 1 home opener compared to what the team normally sees on game day.

“We wanted to create really unique content for fans and something that they could get specific to the app,” Kegley said of the AR experience. “It’s also a good way to increase engagement on your app on game days. There’s so many other things in the app that we want people to find and explore. Whether that’s wayfinding, ticketing or replays, we want people to see that that content is there. It’s also served as a really good advertisement for the app overall and giving people an additional reason to download it on game days.”

Added Kegley: “We’re really scratching the surface with what we’re doing for AR specifically,” saying that the Vikings could also activate experiences during tentpole events such as training camp and the NFL Draft.

Other organizations such as the Tampa Bay Lightning and Kansas City Chiefs have brought unique experiences to life too, with the former taking a full-page newspaper advertisement of Martin St. Louis’ No. 26 jersey retirement in January. By highlighting over the newspaper image, fans could see the sweater being raised to the rafters as if they were inside Amalie Arena.

The Chiefs dove into augmented reality for the first time this current season. When brand partner Coca-Cola approached the NFL team about how it could support its special edition team-branded 16 ounce cans, the corporate partnerships team suggested an activation tied to augmented reality.

James Royer, Director of Digital Media and Strategy, explained that not only would the technology integration drive value to the partnership but would engage consumers’ with the team mobile app (powered by Pittsburgh-based YinzCam) and provide them another experience that they couldn’t receive anywhere else. Additionally, “the ubiquity of the mobile device” in 2017, according to Royer, made the use of AR a no-brainer.

Kansas City fans who shop at local groceries and gas stations in Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri can purchase the branded cans and are tasked with finding six different codes that are embedded within the Chiefs highlight videos. Fans can unlock the videos, dubbed Coca-Cola Refreshing Moments in Chiefs History, by simply downloading the team app and scanning the Chiefs logo on the cans. Consumers fast forward and rewind by twisting the can. Once all six codes are collected, fans can enter them in the Chiefs Kingdom Rewards for a chance at a grand-prize trip to Dallas for a Chiefs-Cowboys game on Nov. 5.

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Royer commented that building some brand and team affinity into the experience was a focal point for both organizations together with the uniqueness element as well.

“You’re seeing that the (AR) technology is accessible for the first time,” Royer said about the team’s adoption of the technology.

“For us specifically, we see this as the first step in doing a lot down the road. We really think that it can enhance our in-stadium experience … and open the doors for new applications.”

Added Kegley: “I think there’s a lot of value there to do some pretty unique activations (with AR) as it pertains to your app, which is a very valuable part of your digital suite so to speak. … It’s a lot easier to access than virtual reality and the limitations there from a device standpoint, how fans are able to view things. This is an easier barrier to entry for fans to still be able to experience. Everyone has a smartphone. If you’re able to put the content right there for everyone, it makes it that much simpler.”

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Twenty years ago, the FOX Sports’ glow hockey puck may have been ahead of its time, but as Zac Fields said to Sports Business Chronicle, “it was the impetus for probably a lot of AR development, in and out of the industry.”

“It had its critics, but nonetheless, was a technical innovation that would create the foundation for a lot of AR development,” added Fields, Senior Vice President of Graphic Technology and Integration at FOX Sports. Subsequently, there was the yellow first down marker. … Football fans can’t watch an NFL game without it now. Those innovations and a lot of what we do with AR is to help the viewer better understand what they’re watching.”

In 2010, FOX Sports first incorporated augmented graphics into its NFL studio shows while its strike zone graphic has been a staple for years, too. Advanced telestrators and the NFL’s Next Gen Stats (player tracking data), combined with augmented reality, have allowed networks like FOX to push the at-home viewing experience.

“When you actually put it in perspective and layer graphics over video, it really is helpful to the viewer to understand if a ball was a strike and how close it was,” Fields said.

Similar to Fields, Turner Sports’ Vice President and Coordinating Producer Steve Fiorello said the goals with augmented reality and any new emerging technology integration is “enhancing the storylines and enhancing the viewership experience.”

Turner’s “first augmented reality hack” came around the 2004 NBA All-Star Game, according to Fiorello. With a full production staff in tow, the media network mounted a camera on a hotel across from STAPLES Center, putting what appeared to be real-life billboard signs and video content on buildings’ exterior to promote the weekend’s festivities.

“It was a bit crude,” said Fiorello, adding that he believed Turner was one of the first sports media networks leading the augmented push.

To date, other such uses of AR and layered graphics have included virtual advertising, including during NBA on TNT and its Thursday night broadcasts. In May, Turner’s esports property ELEAGUE also worked with external partners to incorporate life-like Street Fighter V Invitational figures into the linear TBS broadcast. Fiorello called esports and ELEAGUE, which has been in existence since December 2015, “unchartered territory for us.” As a result, there’s a sizable opportunity to experiment with the still-immature platform beyond even just displaying graphics.

Pete Giorgio, who leads Deloitte’s Sports Consulting practice, said that while the firm’s digital reality group hasn’t conducted any specific work around augmented reality quite yet, it’s still a closely-monitored area because of its untapped potential for sports organizations.

“The real potential and magic of these technologies will be on the AR side,” said Giorgio when asked about the AR vs. VR discussion.

Despite the augmented reality bent, the senior consulting executive said each medium will continue to serve two different purposes, with virtual reality being a better value-add for the at-home experience as fans are brought closer to the action.

Added Giorgio: “I think fans don’t want to give up their full experience of a live sporting event. They’d love to have it augmented in a way that they’re doing already. … I think long-term AR, especially the live fan experience, is going to be huge.”

Up until this point, Giorgio said that team and media executives he has spoken to along with those in league offices have been in a “wait-and-see” type of mode when it comes to utilizing augmented reality.

“They’re waiting to see if there’s really a demand for it from fans and from television viewers. They’re waiting to see where the technology starts to standardize. They’re waiting to see what the software and hardware looks like, what it’s going to cost to produce the content,” Giorgio said.

Other priorities have take precedent, such as solidifying in-seat food and beverage ordering along with mobile ticketing, for example. Just recently, the NBA became the first U.S. professional sports league to launch an AR app via Apple’s ARKit technology, giving fans the opportunity to play virtual Pop-A-Shot from anywhere in the world. It’s a similar experience to what the Cleveland Cavaliers debuted during last year’s NBA playoffs.

Giorgio offered that the upcoming Holiday season could be the inflection point for augmented reality. With the maturing technology, the demand for teams in particular to leverage AR could come from outside forces, including the fans themselves.

A consumer may be shopping at a department and through an AR feature on his or her smartphone, determine where a piece of clothing is made or how much it costs within a matter of seconds. As Giorgio illustrated, the same consumer may then report back to his or her favorite sports team, ‘Why can’t I do this at a stadium as well?’ Sports teams will then potentially say, ‘How do we meet this growing demand?’

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About Mark J. Burns

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